What is the purpose of school?

Volunteer Moderator Name and Contact Info: Brian Kuhn (@bkuhn and bkuhn@sd43.bc.ca and http://shift2future.blogspot.com/)

Historical Perspective

Wikipedia's article on school provides some historical perspective that schools have existed since ancient Greece, India, and China. Schools provided a way to formally spread the essential knowledge and literacy of the day, often related to ensuring citizens could participate in the government (e.g., Roman Empire).

Schools as we know them today were places to "put" children during the Industrial Revolution. Many saw children as a threat to employment. As the technicality of the factories grew and as agricultural methods became more complicated, it became imparative to know how to read and later write. Stalin found this out the hard way during his First 5 Year Plan in the 1930's when the Soviets built thousands of factories that employed illiterate peasants. It was impossible to follow wriiten directions, to read user manuals or to repair broken equipment as many of these factories came from other industrialized countries. Stalin's Second Five Year Plan put more emphasis on education and creating a more literate workforce, thus incrreasing factory prcduction and efficiency in preparation for the upcoming struggle against Germany. The public schools that emgerged during the industrial revolution matched many of the business systems that were in already in place in the factories: bells or whistles to signal the beginning and the end to the work day, cookie cutter production, mission statements, hierarchical structures and the like.The mission of these schools was to produce loyal workers who would obey authority. Nationalism also played a key role in public schooling in the 20th century. More and more nations used the public school system to diseminate propaganda to the masses. This was most notable in Nazi Germany. The entire system was overhauled to teach hate, quasi-science and a new mythology. Later,
Post-Industrial education focused more on the applied sciences that was best exemplified by the race to the moon. Creativity and innovation became essential to produce the navigation and computer systems needed to win the race. In addition, schools were used to teach democratic principles and in Canada, multiculturilism become part of school curriclum. As the world progressed into the 80's and 90's the need for factory workers and farmers was drastically diminished in the industrialized world. Manufacturing jobs continued to be moved to off shore to countires with cheaper labour costs and the shift to more service orientated jobs had schools get students ready for seven to eight careers. The days of the life long company employee in a factory or a mill are now over.

Primary Sources on Education in History:

Ancient Greece and Rome
Herodas: fr. 'The Third Mime' - 3rd century BCE
On 'Bad' Students

"Flog him Lampriscos, across the shoulders, till his wicked soul is all but out of him. He's spent my all in playing odd and even; knuckle bones are nothing to him. Why, he hardly knows the door of the Letter School. And yet the thirtieth comes round and I must pay---tears no excuse.
His writing tablet which I take the trouble to wax anew each month, lies unregarded in the corner. If by chance he deigns to touch it he scowls like Hades, then puts nothing right but smears it out and out. He doesn't know a letter, till you scream it twenty times. The other day his father made him spell "Maron"; the rascal made it "Simon": dolt I thought myself to send him to a school!"

Plutarch: 'The Training of Children' - 2nd century CE
On the Importance of a Good Education

"We are to look after such masters for our children as are blameless in their lives, not justly reprovable for their manners, and of the best experience in teaching. For the very spring and root of honesty and virtue lies in the felicity of lighting on good education. And as husbandmen are wont to set forks to prop up feeble plants, so do honest schoolmasters prop up youth by careful instructions and admonitions, that they may duly bring forth the buds of good manners. But there are certain fathers nowadays who deserve that men should spit on them in contempt, who, before making any proof of those to whom they design to commit the teaching of their children, either through unacquaintance, or, as it sometimes falls out, through unskillfulness, intrust them to men of no good reputation, or, it may be, such as are branded with infamy. Although they are not altogether so ridiculous, if they offend herein through unskillfulness; but it is a thing most extremely absurd, when, as oftentimes it happens, though they know they are told beforehand, by those who understand better than themselves, both of the inability and rascality of certain schoolmasters, they nevertheless commit the charge of their children to them, sometimes overcome by their fair and flattering speeches, and sometimes prevailed on to gratify friends who entreat them. This is an error of like nature with that of the sick man, who, to please his friends, forbears to send for the physician that might save his life by his skill, and employs a mountebank that quickly dispatches him out of the world; or of his who refuses a skillful shipmaster, and then, at his friend's entreaty, commits the care of his vessel to one that is therein much his inferior. In the name of Jupiter and all the gods, tell me how can that man deserve the name of a father, who is more concerned to gratify others in their requests, than to have his children well educated?

Horace: fr. Satire 1.6 - 1st century BCE

On a Father's Sacrifices to Have His Child Educated

A poor man, with hardly more
than a garden plot, he did not want
to send me to Flavius' school,
where the sons of the local yokels went,
schoolbags hanging from their arms,
carrying the two-bit tuition every Ides.

His son, he dared to take to Rome for schooling
in the ways which any knight or senator
would have his son taught.
My clothes, the train of servants,
(it's how the city folk go about)
if anyone had seen me, he would have believed
they were furnished to me
from the family fortune.

He himself played the part of guardian,
absolutely incorruptible,
he accompanied me to all my classes.
What more is there to say?
My purity of heart, the root of
virtue, he preserved - not only from misbehavior,
but also from the appearance of impropriety

He didn't care if later someone would object
that I had become an auctioneer, or an agent,
as he was, chasing paultry profits.
Nor would I have complained. But seeing where
I've come, I owe him even greater praise.

Pliny, the Younger: Letters, 5.13 - 1st century CE
On 'Public' vs. Private Education

"For where can they pass their time so pleasantly as in their native town, where can they be brought up so virtuously as under their parent's eyes; or so inexpensively as at home? If you put your money together, you could hire teachers at a trifling cost, and you could add to their stipends the sum you now spend on your son's lodgings and travel money---no small sum. I have no children of my own, still, in the interests of the community---which I may consider as my child or my parent---I am ready to contribute a third part of what you may decide to club together upon. I would even promise the whole sum if I did not fear that if I did so, my generosity might be corrupted to serve private interests, as I see is the case in many places where teachers are employed at the public charge. There is only one way of preventing the evil, and that is by leaving the right of employing the teachers to the parents alone, who will be careful to make a right choice if they are obliged to find part of the money. You cannot make your children a better present than this, nor can you do your place a better turn."

Martial: Epigram 10.62 - 1st century CE
On Summer Vacation

"So let your Scythian scourge with its dreadful thongs, such as flogged Marsyas of Celaenae, and your formidable cane---the schoolmaster's scepter---be laid aside, and sleep until the Ides of October. Surely in summer time, if the boys keep their health, they do enough."

Quintillian: The Ideal Education - 1st century CE
On the Fallacy of the Idea of a 'Bad' Student

"But dull and unteachable persons are no more produced in the course of nature than are persons marked by monstrosity and deformities; such are certainly but few. It will be a proof of this assertion, that, among boys, good promise is shown in the far greater number; and, if it passes off in the progress of time, it is manifest that it was not natural ability, but care, that was wanting."

Thoughts on today's schools

Dictionary.com's definition for schooltalks about a place of learning, a place to teach.

Fast forward to today and not much has changed. Most think that we are still preparing students for the workforce by teaching them lessons about being on time punishment for late assignments and forcing students to learn with the same old papers and pencils.

So, it's a place, we usually think of a building, often of a particular design and style. The purpose as we know it now in simple terms is to support teaching and learning. But, a lot of other things have been added along the way. Social services, community services, athletics, etc. In our District we are seeing a tighter link between community support and school success. Many (most?) working families rely on schools to care for their children 6 hours a day while the parents are at work. This requires a place/building for their kids to go for those 6 hours. I think the notion of school being a place to go, at least part of the time, to learn is woven quite deeply into our expectations as citizens. Maybe the real question is what should the purpose of school evolve into next?

My son (22) says it's also about the social aspect of meeting friends, hanging out, networking with people. And his friend (22) says that many people meet their future spouses at school. School makes it pretty easy for kids to meet other kids, become friends, learn appopriate (hopefully) social skills.

“In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer

I wrote a post "What is the purpose of school?" to share some personal thoughts on this question.

What might schools become?

From an article by CITE, here's an idea of schools being nodes within our learning communities - that this is where we model lifelong learning.

Most schools and classrooms will no longer be the central learning hubs they are today. Today’s model of schooling is to bring the learner to the knowledge—tomorrow we will bring the knowledge to the learners. We must recognize that schools and classrooms are becoming nodes in networked learning communities. We must begin to think about how to organize learning in networked communities and not limit learning within the boundaries of classrooms and school buildings—which would be to limit our thinking to what has been possible in the past in a single school or node.

A Networked Learning Community is constructed as its members collaborate to achieve common goals, learning together as they develop solutions for problems they are addressing in common. As the learning community grows, the members of the community develop new knowledge and skills through their participation and contributions. Everyone becomes a learner in a Networked Learning Community, and the distinctions between students and teachers fade away.

The purpose of school should be to influence students to be life-long learners in all facets of life. To think and act independently in the face of adversity and to build citizens with a strong character.

“One of education’s chief roles is to prepare future workers and citizens to deal with the challenges of their times. Knowledge work – the kind of work that most people will need in the coming decades – can be done anywhere by anyone who has the expertise, a cell phone, a laptop, and an Internet connection. But to have expert knowledge workers, every country needs an education system that produces them; therefore, education becomes the key to economic survival in the 21st century.” p. 6 of http://21stcenturyskillsbook.com/

I just recently an article by Janna Anderson, lead author of the Future of the Internet series and she says in The Futurist (Jan-Feb 2010), page 24:

“But the traditional idea of the teacher may be much less valuable to the future, just like the traditional library will have much less value…What we do need are places where people can gather – places that foster an atmosphere of intellectual expansion, where learners can pursue deeper meaning or consult specialists with access to deep knowledge resources. It’s all about people accessing networked knowledge, online, in person, and in databases. We need collective intelligence centers, and schools could be that way, too.”

"Schools of the future" and "What should secondary schools look like in the future?" are posts that talk about ideas around physical school design. Assuming we agree that a physical place called "school" is still necessary for the foreseeable future, we need to really figure out what needs to change from the "factories of teaching" traditional school buildings are designed for.

Knowledge and the Foundations of Society

Is the purpose of school to educate children about the expectations, norms, and "rules" for living within our society? Whether consciously or not, this is, in effect, what schools do. So how do we do so consciously and thoughtfully?

Again, from the CITE article mentioned above, there are three dimensions of learning communities defined: knowledge transmission and conservation; knowledge adaption; and invention and knowledge generation.

Dimension #1: Knowledge Transmission

Our schools traditionally focus on knowledge transmission. We pass what we've learned and what we feel will help students achieve success in this world from one generation to the next. The flow of information is from old to young - and students are largely passive receptors in this process. And this dimension is founded in the assumption and belief that children are a "blank slate" (and therefore it's the adults' job to teach them the right things...).

The process of knowledge transmission also creates a common understanding and the sense of belonging that comes from everyone (in general) knowing or having experienced similar things. It may seem trivial to be able to understand the comments and jokes going on around you, but it is and essential contributor to a communal sense of belonging (ask any immigrants how it feels to have to constantly ask for explanations!). So we teach all of our students about Egypt and Shakespeare and space...
This is also the dimension that standardized testing tends to focus on - because this is how we can most easily find ways to measure success. Do students know the facts and figures? or not? It's not the only thing that needs to be measured when trying to determine the efficacy of a system, but it IS the one that we know HOW to measure...

Dimension #2 and #3: Knowledge Adaption and Invention

Being able to work together, consider other perspectives, identify different or new kinds of knowledge - these all require more of a focus on PROCESS than on CONTENT. In a world where information/knowledge is changing so quickly, it is more important than ever to equip our children to constantly learn, adapt, consider, listen, question, think critically... And these skills can only be taught experientially - by doing it, by modelling it, by practicing it!

And these are the dimensions that are both critical AND difficult to measure. Our schools need to add more of a focus on the processes/practices involved in these two dimensions of learning. They are, however, by their nature, more difficult to mandate or legislate. They are more difficult to measure. And the body of knowledge and experience of HOW to do these things is not as established or accepted.

Figuring out how to move our curriculum standards, assessment methods, professional development and practices towards more process orientation is required, in order to equip our children with the "tools" for success - for today and the future!

The Purpose of School is to...

Writers... let's start to craft, using the growing collection of thoughts and ideas above, what we think the purpose of school is. Let's flesh out an outline of the key ideas.

Ensure citizens are literate

  • read (paper based, online, for information, for pleasure)
  • write (pencil/pen paper form, digital form)
  • numeracy
  • analyze (compare, contrast, judge)

Develop processes of learning and critical thinking within students

Transmit necessary content

  • history
  • culture
  • current events
  • literature

Create opportunities to develop skills

  • sport
  • art
  • music
  • digital media tools
  • information and communications technology

Prakash Nair

Here: about 3-5 minutes into the presentation

The ultimate purpose of education is the Pursuit of Happiness.
What makes you happy? What is your passion? Nair says that we do education backwards. We should be teaching students to pursue their passion, not their profession. THe profession will come from the passion. This is in line with what Ken Robinson says in the famous Ted Talk.